Vincent’s Comprehensive Guide to Hitch-Hiking

Vincent’s Comprehensive Guide to Hitch-Hiking

Tired of trains, planes, and buses?

Want to add some adventure into your journey?

Meet and interact with locals from the country you’re visiting?

Increase the depth of your traveling bona-fides?

Or perhaps your main goal is to save a considerable amount of your travel fund? Well folks, you can accomplish all these desires by “thumbing it”. I’m here to tell you all about how to become an accomplished hitch-hiker. If you’ve never hitched before, you might be ambivalent about the prospect. Don’t fret… hitching is super-easy, anyone can do it! And it’s also quite an adventure. Just follow my guidelines and I guarantee you’ll be a seasoned hitcher in no time!

Hitching in Mauritania, Africa
  • Pros of Hitching:

The most convenient way to traverse long distances of the globe for free is to “thumb it”. Hitch-hiking is acceptable and even quite common in many regions of the world, even poor, third-world countries. The biggest Pro of hitch-hiking is the ability to make it considerable distances with no money. It’s possible to travel over 1,000 kilometers in a single day (my personal ‘record’ is just over 600 km, though I’ve met many hard-core hitchers who’ve easily managed over twice that distance).

Hitching is also a good way to practice your social skills with strangers, and meet interesting locals wherever you happen to be. Sometimes, the person giving you a lift will offer you gifts. Before I ever went to Russia, I was given some Ruble coins by a friendly truck driver who picked me up. Sometimes, your driver will provide you meals, like the generous German who took me halfway through France in a single ride. That same guy even offered me a job!! (which I declined, as I was headed in a different direction than his company). There can also be occasions where your driver will offer to host you at their home for the night.

If you’re new in a foreign country, you can possibly pick up some useful phrases of the local language, or learn tidbits about the culture, as well as Do’s and Dont’s of the country, from the drivers who pick you up. Take it all in and remember to be grateful to your driver.

Hitching to Bratislava, Slovakia
  • Cons of Hitching:

There are also many negatives to consider. You may wait hours, even days in some instances, before catching a ride. I once waited most of an entire day on the outskirts of Murmansk, Russia, before finally giving up, heading down to the train station, and catching the next train south. In that instance, I had the money, but not the time. My Russian visa was rapidly running out, and I’d wasted an entire day just standing around doing nothing. If you’re in a hurry and have some extra money to spend, hitching might not be your best option.

It’s possible (albeit very rare) you might be picked up by unsavory characters, who want to rob you, rape you, or worse. It’s happened before and will undoubtedly happen again. I’ve heard stories about hitching backpackers who have disappeared and been found dead soon afterwards. They aren’t always female, either. I was once picked up by a mulleted weirdo in Argentina who tried to molest me! Luckily, I got out of that terrible situation, but it’s something to keep in mind. These are some of the chances you must take if you decide to join the autostop world. Be cautious and beware: you don’t have to accept a ride from everyone who stops for you. Use your best judgment to stay out of potential life-threatening situations.

Hitching in the back of a pig truck in Guatemala
  • Hitching Within Cities:

I’ve met certain super-hardcore hitchers who refuse to pay for any type of transport, even within cities. Hitching inside a city can be difficult.  What are the chances a driver will stop who’s headed to the specific spot of the city you desire to go? Fewer drivers are inclined to stop; chances are they’re in a hurry or have a busy schedule to follow. Most drivers you encounter within cities have fewer reasons to pick up hitch-hikers.

Personally, I’m not that big of a hitch-hiking snob, and usually prefer to take public transport (subways, trolleys, city buses), within cities. These options are usually cheap enough and much more convenient. But hitching within a city certainly is possible, if you have the extra time to spare.

The best places to look for rides within a city is near stop lights, where the cars have to stop. You can approach drivers and politely ask, especially if they have open windows. Also, look on main thoroughfares which are headed in the direction you want to go (the ideal option is to walk to the specific street you want to traverse, and look for drivers heading down it). Chances are drivers on narrow residential streets aren’t going far.

Hitching through the Sahara Desert
  • How to Find a Hitching Spot:

It’s easier to hitch from one city/region to another. Find a spot alongside a highway or freeway… make sure there are relatively wide shoulders along the road where cars can stop. Make sure cars are allowed to stop at these places. It’s best to be standing at an area where cars are passing by at lower speeds, so they have enough time to see you and make the decision to stop for you. If you’re standing beside a highway with a speed limit of 70 miles per hour or 120 km per hour, cars are less inclined to stop.

For me, the ideal places are either bus stops or, better yet, gas stations / rest areas alongside the highways. Cars are stopping here anyway, and everyone who pulls in will see you and have plenty of time to decide to take you up on a ride.

I strongly recommend the highway-side rest areas; they’re usually the perfect place to hitch. You can either stand near the entrance or exit and thumb it… cars will be going slowly here, either coming or going from their break. Drivers will have plenty of time to react to your presence.

If that doesn’t work, you can always walk over to the doors of the convenience store or fast-food restaurant, and simply start asking people coming and going from the building. You can even walk around to folks refilling their cars at the gas station pumps. If the situation becomes terrible at rest areas (not likely), at least you have shelter if it starts to rain, a restroom to wash up and use the toilet, and a relatively cheap place to buy food/drinks.

Bus stops are uncommon alongside highways, but they do exist, especially near cities. I’ve found many rides by simply waiting at bus stops near or alongside highways. Cars have a wide area to pull over, and you’ll normally have a sheltered place to put your bags and shade yourself from the sun. Vehicles also likely won’t be going so fast if they’re passing a bus stop.

Hitching in Thailand with some Russian gals
  • Hitch Wiki:

Hitch Wiki http://hitchwiki.org/en/Main_Page is a phenomenal website for hitch-hiking aficionados. You can search the best hitch-hiking spots in your city or area. Previous hitch-hikers can post their experiences at these spots, pin them onto a map, and summarize how successful and convenient their hitches were from those precise locations. Often, helpful hitchers will leave detailed instructions on how to arrive at said hitching spots, via either walking or public transport.

I’ve used hitchwiki dozens of times, and overall it’s been incredibly helpful for me. Obviously, every hitch-hiker has different experiences. Sometimes, I’ve ventured to spots which have been rated outstanding by former hitchers, only to find them extremely difficult for me. I’ve also had good luck in spots which were poorly-rated on hitchwiki. So don’t take the reviews literally… don’t expect your hitching experience to be exactly like those you read about on hitchwiki, but rather use it as a general guide to what you might be able to expect.

Hitching north of the Arctic Circle in Russia… I love to use signs!
  • Should I Make a Sign?

I personally enjoy making signs, because I save them (as long as they turn into a successful hitch) and keep them for souvenirs. What better way to preserve the memories of your triumphant hitches of yesteryear? I have dozens of old hitching signs, which are now treasured keepsakes. That being said, I don’t always make signs. In fact, I’ve hitched quite often without one and had about the same success rates.

I’ve been scolded by condescending, know-it-all hitchers who say signs are for hitching amateurs. I disagree; it’s your hitching trip, do it however you want. I’ve also been told that it’s easier to get a ride without a sign. Although I’ve had about the same success with signs as without, I can see how this could ring true. Drivers who see your sign are less likely to stop unless they’re going to that specific city. However, if you don’t have a sign but are just trying to hitch in a general direction, a larger pool of drivers can be more inclined to give you a lift.

Making a sign also requires locating the requisite materials. It usually isn’t hard to find some kind of cardboard or large paper. If you’re around a rest area, look around the dumpsters in the back of the shops. If you’re in a completely remote area, you’re probably out of luck, although there may be trash scattered around which you can use. You’ll also need a sharpie or magic marker, as standard pens and pencils can be barely visible (or virtually invisible) to drivers whizzing by at high speeds.

Having a sign can actually be extremely beneficial in some countries, like those with a language barrier, and places where hitching isn’t widely practiced or an accepted part of the culture. In countries like China and Thailand, locals don’t generally hitch (or pick up hitchers). Chances are, if someone stops they won’t speak English. Often in China, drivers will stop only because they think you’re in trouble. When you try to explain you’re hitching, the drivers obviously won’t understand, and confusion will prevail.

How do you counter this? I’ve met many hitchers who had local hosts or friends write signs in the local language. For example, a few hardcore hitchers I met had couchsurfed in China. They asked their CS host to help write a letter explaining what they were doing. It went something like:

“We are on a grand journey around the world, and are traveling entirely by the generosity of others who agree to give us a ride. Please help us on our trip. We’ll be very thankful.”

When the Chinese drivers stop and read the sign (in Chinese characters), they completely understand the intentions of the hitchers. Usually they are enthusiastic to help. They’ve already stopped, after all!

Hitching in Kyrgyzstan
  • Hitch-hiking Etiquette:

Once, I was hitching with a friend in Poland. We were having a really rough go at it, although our hitch site had been highly recommended on hitchwiki. It was scorching hot outside and our spot didn’t have any shade. We’d already been there a few hours when a young hippy approached. He gruffly looked us over, and didn’t return our “hello”. Then he stopped a few meters in front of us and began showing his thumb. The inconsiderate hippy had effectively commandeered our spot! Sure enough, less than twenty minutes later, a car stopped for him. The arrogant and selfish hippy didn’t bother to ask the driver if we could join, or wave us in first, although we’d been at that spot far longer than him.

Of course the driver was going to take the solo traveler (with fewer bags) rather than two travelers. The hippy was extremely rude, however. He should have taken into consideration that we’d been at the spot first. He could have tried to communicate and offer to join us, or to move a bit further down the road, rather than greedily stealing our spot. I’d strongly advise any hitchers to do the opposite of what the condescending hippy did, and respect fellow hitchers they may encounter.

I’d also advise aspiring hitchers to have a positive, cheerful demeanor. If you’re a driver going a long distance and spot a hitcher, then as you approach you see them with an irritable scowl on their face, a hunched over posture, looking like they’re having a terrible day, would you want that individual to be sharing your car space? Probably not. Don’t misinterpret this and keep a false smile permanently plastered across your face at all times; drivers will probably interpret it as forced and drive right on by. Try to think cheerful thoughts,don’t get discouraged if you don’t manage to find a ride immediately, and create a positive vibe. Look confident and content with your situation. Try not to become discouraged no matter what happens (I haven’t always been able to manage this, but I try my best!!).

Patience is an important virtue. Hitching is not like taking a train or bus, where there’s a predetermined embarkation time. Like I mentioned earlier, you may have to wait many hours or even days in some instances. That’s why it’s best not to have an urgent time-frame when hitching. Take it easy and relax, even if it’s taking a long time to get a ride.

For hitch-hikers, it’s not always possible to have exemplary hygiene. Maybe you’ve been wild-camping for the past week, and haven’t been able to shower or wash clothes. However, at least give an effort to be as presentable as you can. Remember, you’ll have to share a cramped and often closed quarters with your generous driver, and he or she likely won’t want to smell your hideous body odor for the entire ride. You’re also more likely to get picked up if you don’t look like a stinky hobo!

Hitching in Siberia, Russia
  • What About Etiquette With the Driver?

Think about why the drivers are stopping for you. Some are bored and / or on the verge of falling asleep, and just want someone to help keep them awake and aware. Long-distance truckers could often fall into this category. Others are isolated and want someone to converse with. Still other drivers just want to help you out of the kindness of their hearts. Possibly some are former hitchers or hippies, and are interested in exchanging stories.

When you hop into their car, you won’t know your mobile host’s intentions. Keep an open mind and try your hardest to return their generosity; it’s the least you can do for the free ride. If the driver tries to chat with you, even if there are extreme language difficulties, try your best to indulge their curiosity and keep them engaged. Use gestures, objects, or pictures to communicate.

Sometimes, the drivers are quiet. Respect this as well. If a driver makes no attempt to converse, don’t feel obliged to keep trying to start conversations. Enjoy mutual silence. Just remember, you’re the guest and the recipient of a favor. That doesn’t mean you owe the driver anything… except courtesy, respect, and good vibes!

Try not to be confrontational, even if the driver starts talking about something you find repulsive or offensive, or turns out to be a scumbag. You’re still a guest in their car! I’ve been in situations where I didn’t particularly like my driver or care for what he or she was talking about, but still I gave my best effort to be agreeable. My own way of returning their generosity.

If the driver becomes simply unbearable, the best thing to do is ask out, as kindly and politely as possible. Do your best not to escalate any situation or piss off any potential scumbag or sociopath!

Hitching from Estonia to Latvia
  • Essential Items to Bring:

I always have a Swiss Army knife, and make sure it’s in my pocket (rather than buried deep in my backpack) and readily available if needed. I would recommend having some kind of weapon: chances are overwhelming you’ll never have to use it, or if you were in a situation where you did, it likely wouldn’t make much of a difference. Still, it’s better to have one at the ready, just in case. There were a few situations where I genuinely felt in danger. Once, I was hitching alone across the Sahara Desert and was picked up by a van full of men from Mali.

(I detailed the experience in this post: http://vincentvegabond.com/travel/hitch-hiking/hitching-tales-1-morocco/ )

Another time, I was picked up by a few very sketchy-looking characters in Poland, who then went well off the expected highway and kept speaking rapid Polish on a CV radio they had mounted in their old junker car. A third time, as I mentioned earlier, a guy tried to molest me in Argentina. On all three occasions, the tiny knife probably wouldn’t have done me much good if things got to that point, but at least I had something. Bad things are rare, but they can happen! Better to be safe than sorry.

If you’re hitching for long distances, you might find yourself stranded overnight in the middle of nowhere. This happened to me in Siberia, Russia. It would be handy to have a tent, hammock, or at least a sleeping bag. Some kind of shelter where you can keep warm and dry for the night, if need be. If you’re in a deserted area but are prepared, an overnight wild-camping adventure shouldn’t be difficult, and will probably be a lot of fun!

Often, a driver who stops for you will open their trunk for you to put your large backpack, suitcase, or bags. Keep your essentials handy in a day-pack, a small backpack or bag that you can place on your lap.

What to put in the day-pack? This depends on the length and time-frame of your hitch, but it’s smart to bring extra food / snacks and water, just in case you don’t make it to your destination when you think. A smart-phone, especially one with working mobile service, would also be extremely helpful, both in dangerous situations, or to communicate with hosts or those you know. Share your location, the best you can, so in case you get lost or disappear somewhere, people will have a good idea where to look. The more specific you are, the better chance you’ll have of getting found / rescued. Also, bring a head-torch in case you find yourself somewhere in the dark (I bring my head-torch with me everywhere, and it’s come in handy countless times!).

It’d be useful to have a sweater, hat, and waterproof clothing at all times, even in the middle of summer. You never know when a thunderstorm could pass through the area, drench you, and make everything around considerably cooler.

Goooood Times!!

What Else?

If a car breaks down, gets a flat tire, or the driver has to make a brief stop on the way to do some kind of task, it would be cool if you offered to help! Remember, you’re the recipient of an act of generosity, so don’t be shy to try to return the favor.

There are many regions where you could encounter police or soldier checkpoints during your ride. It would be best to keep your passport or ID handy in your pocket, rather than buried in your bag in the trunk. Never lie to the authorities (unless you’re on the run from the law, haha!)… hitching usually isn’t a big deal and they likely won’t care. If you are in a country or area where hitching is illegal, and a cop pulls over for you, be kind and respectful. Patiently explain you weren’t aware of the laws. Unless the cop is a complete douche, they’ll likely let you go without a ticket. Sometimes, they may even drive you to a nearby location where you can hitch. If you’re lucky, the cops will even help you hitch! I’ve had cops help flag down cars and instruct drivers to give me a lift, and it worked!

You could be unlucky enough to run into an evil cop, however. I met a man who (according to his account, at least) was literally arrested in Switzerland, and booked into the local jail!! His “crime”? Hitching in an unauthorized spot!

Try to be aware of the local laws, and learn about tips on how to deal with the local authorities beforehand. It just might come in handy and save you money on tickets (or worse!).

  • Would You Recommend Hitching?

Absolutely! It’s actually my preferred way to travel, and not only for the ‘free’ factor. Hitching is incredibly rewarding in its own right. Each hitch is different, its own adventure. You’re likely to meet some remarkable people and have incredibly social interactions. You’ll probably learn new things about whichever unfamiliar land you happen to be visiting. And you just might make some new friends… I strongly recommend it!

Thanks for reading! Any thoughts or suggestions? Anything I missed? Feel free to comment below!